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Latin Jazz: A Legitimate American Music

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By Bobby Matos

Well-informed historians and critics have stated that they believe jazz is America's only art form or its most important art form. Obviously, to music scholars and experts, most pop music derives from jazz, including R&B, rock, hiphop and other subgenres.

One of jazz music's most important styles, however, is often ignored or not acknowledged to be a part of jazz. Latin jazz, originally called AfroCuban jazz, is often perceived as being a foreign entity and is often denigrated. In Ken Burns' documentary Jazz, it is only briefly mentioned. The truth demands a more complex reference.

Going back to the beginnings of jazz, let's remember that New Orleans was a port, a part of trade routes that included many of the Caribbean islands since the early Spanish and French colonizations. Comparisons of early Ragtime music from New Orleans with early Danzon music (a 19th century creolization of the English and French country dance, fusing elements of European chamber music with an Africanized rhythm on the tympani) from Cuba reveal many similarities, especially in the use of AfroCaribbean rhythms. Early jazz and blues pioneers, like WC Handy and Fats Waller, acknowledged what they called "the Spanish Tinge."

During World War I, famed African-American bandleader James Reese Europe led large orchestras as part of the US Army's elite black unit "The Hell Fighters" in Europe and at home. They played both martial and jazzier music and recruited many musicians from Puerto Rico (a US possession), including many who became known as major innovators in both the Latin and jazz idioms. Rafael Hernandez won fame as the composer of many Latin tunes including "Lamento Borincano" while trombonist Juan Tizol is famous as a collaborator of Duke Ellington and the composer of "Perdido" and "Caravan."

By the '30s, much Latin music was being heard in the US, including Argentinean Tango, Brazilian Samba and Cuban Rumba and Son (an AfroCuban song form from Oriente, Cuba). One famous Cuban Son Pregon (a street vendor's musical cry advertising his wares), "El Manicero," became a huge international hit in 1930 under its American title "The Peanut Vendor," played by everyone including jazz master Louis Armstrong. This song inspired a so-called 'Rhumba' craze though 'Rhumba,' spelled with 'h,' was really a watered-down, over-orchestrated version of the Son and, in reality, has no resemblance to the virile percussive AfroCuban 'Rumbas.' This popularity inspired a young AfroCuban musician to try his hand finding work in the US. Mario Bauza was originally a classically-trained clarinetist and alto saxophonist, a former child prodigy, who realized that Cuba and its highly segregated classical music scene had no place for a black musician, no matter how talented. After arriving in New York and initially finding work playing with Latin dance bands, Bauza taught himself to play trumpet to take advantage of recording opportunities. He discovered the world of swing bands and was soon playing with the renowned Chick Webb Orchestra.

Bauza absorbed the essence of the Swing musical style, the jazzy and bluesy phrasing and the use of brass and reed sections playing counterpoint to each other to create rhythmic tension. Later he joined the orchestra of popular cultural icon Cab Calloway, where he met a talented young trumpet player who became a lifelong friend—John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie. Then Bauza gave up the security of working with popular bands to do something startling.

Frank "Machito" Grillo was Mario's brother-in-law and a childhood friend, known as a singer and a maracas player in Cuba. He mentioned to Bauza that he was coming to New York and Bauza replied that he would create an orchestra especially for him. Copying the unique swing style of brass and reed section counterpoint and combining it with truly authentic AfroCuban rhythms, Machito and his AfroCubans (a revolutionary name for a revolutionary orchestra) was formed at the beginning of the '40s.

Much less commercial than the popular Latin dance bands catering to mainstream white America, the band at first struggled for its existence but Bauza persisted, adding many jazz musicians and concepts. The combination of authentic AfroCuban rhythms with swing horn section writing was a new concept that became the standard in later years. Inspired by his talented musicians and his vast experience, Bauza composed a song called "Tanga" in 1943. This moment in time has been generally recognized as the beginnings of 'Latin jazz' (although Bauza always preferred the term 'AfroCuban jazz') and "Tanga" is known as the first AfroCuban jazz composition.

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